BOSTON — The Baker administration unveiled a new risk measurement system Friday for cities and towns in Massachusetts, raising the cases required per 100,000 threshold for the “red” designation while adding variables for community size and positive test rate, according to an administration official.
The changes, outlined in detail at a Friday afternoon press conference, include a new set of guidances from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education aimed at providing data to help municipalities and school committees restart or maintain in-person learning.
They could also significantly shift the risk designations assigned to each community, which carry implications for business restrictions. Last week, 121 municipalities -- more than a third of those in the state -- landed in the red with an average daily incidence rate of 8 cases per 100,000 or higher over the prior two weeks.
Officials did not say immediately how many communities would be marked red under the new system, and the weekly numbers had not yet been released when the administration official described the new system.
In a new weekly dashboard released on Friday, 16 towns are now considered at high risk, while 92 are considered at moderate risk.
While the threshold is slightly higher under the new metrics, the official said the change brings Massachusetts more in line with peer states and better captures the nuances of COVID-19 transmission at the municipal level.
Since August, the administration has published weekly numbers and a color-coded map indicating the average daily case rate in each of the state’s 351 cities and towns. Communities with a rate of eight or more cases per 100,000 residents have been marked in red, the highest risk level that can force a community to step backwards one stage in economic reopening.
The new system now break cities and towns into three categories based on population: those with fewer than 10,000 residents, those with between 10,000 and 50,000 residents, and those with more than 50,000 residents.
Those among the smallest population category will have their ratings decided based solely on total case counts rather than on case or testing rates. Ten or fewer cases will deem a community gray, above that up to 15 will earn it green, above that up to 25 will result in yellow, and more than 25 will prompt the highest-risk red designation.
The administration official told reporters the update will better reflect public health conditions in less populated areas because counting rates at such a minute level can skew results with small numbers of cases.
For example, the official said, in Nahant -- a tiny town with a population of slightly more than 3,400 -- only 12 confirmed cases would push the community into the red under the old system.
To land in the red, those in the middle population range must have either 10 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a positive test rate of 5 percent or higher in the two-week sample period.
For the largest cities and towns with populations greater than 50,000, they will only be deemed highest-risk if they have both 10 cases per 100,000 or more and also a positivity rate of at least 4 percent.
Green, yellow and red designations for moderate- and large-population communities will be assigned on varying combinations of case rates, total cases and testing rates rather than a simple and single criterion of case rates.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his deputies have argued for weeks that the increase in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts -- which Baker on Thursday described to local officials as a “second surge” -- has not translated to in-school transmission. The official on Friday repeated that point.
The administration has been pushing communities to avoid remote learning wherever possible, in a handful of cases even threatening to audit certain cities or towns.
Baker was joined by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Education Secretary James Peyser, and DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley for the Friday press conference.
This is a developing story. Stay with Boston 25 News for the latest details as soon as they become available.
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